Akram Bunni

Syria’s Children 2022

“A tent”… is this new year’s wish. The word was repeated by a 10-year-old girl, Shahad, from a camp in the northern countryside of Idlib after wind and heavy rain ripped her family’s tent apart. Samer’s (11 years old) wish was to escape the camp’s mud and resume his studies in order to become a doctor who treats people’s wounds. Lara (8 years old) from Aleppo wished to live in any country other than Syria, one where she could be safe, go to school and play games. Issam (9 years old) teared up as he wished for his father and two brothers’ release from prison so his life would change…

Simple, heartbreaking wishes voiced by hungry and exhausted children whose lives and dreams were crushed by the devastation left by a war whose belligerents want to perpetuate and make more destructive.

United Nations reports have indicated that the Syrian war is among the biggest crises and challenges the country has faced in modern history. According to its figures, children have been the most vulnerable to the agonies of the protracted war that has not only deprived them of their innocence but also their most basic rights, the right to grow up and develop, be safe and healthy, and receive an education.

This year will not grant the millions of Syrian children a chance at a safe and secure life. Many are at risk of dying. Those in regime-controlled areas are facing displacement, the deterioration of medical services, and life in a family too poor to afford basic necessities and the cost of medicine and medical treatment. Those in camps are in danger because of the paucity of humanitarian aid, which is on the decline, mother nature’s fury, the health care system’s total collapse, diseases that had been forgotten spreading among children, and the lack of access to the vaccines used around the world.

The reasons are multiple, but death is one and the same… Thousands of Syrian children were killed by airstrikes and weapons that are banned internationally. Thousands of others lost their lives to hunger and grief in besieged areas, and thousands were detained for various periods of time to pressure family members who had fled or because the children had spontaneously decided to take part in protests. Hundreds of these child detainees were tortured to death or died because of detention centers’ depraved conditions. A higher number of little ones, some of whom had not been a day above 10 years old, were killed, maimed or disabled after being forcibly recruited to fight the wars of grown men by various parties and armed groups.

Over 50 percent of Syrian children lack a minimal degree of safety and food security amid skyrocketing prices and plummeting living conditions, with the war having displaced millions of these children, be they internally displaced or refugees living in neighboring countries... Hundreds of thousands have been separated from their families, falling victim to subjugation, becoming orphans, and living in deprivation. They look for shelter and a way to quell their hunger, and tens of thousands of them, the lucky ones, live with their grandfather or grandmother and have lost most of the members of their families. The families of others who were born outside the country do not possess the documents necessary for registering them and proving their lineage and nationality.

With the new year approaching, millions of Syrian children are still deprived of their right to receive an education and continue their studies. The first time, because of the deliberate or arbitrary bombardment of their schools... One school out of three is no longer operational today because it has been destroyed or heavily damaged, has been transformed into a shelter for displaced families, or is being used as a hospital or as a military site.

The second time, because many children are unable to attend school, either because they don’t have the required official documents and certificates after they had been burned or lost under the rubble of what had previously been their home, or because of the insecurity in the country and the damages to infrastructure and transportation routes, which is especially relevant to children residing in villages and girls, who are most vulnerable to being harassed, kidnapped and raped.

This problem is worse in areas that the state has retrieved control over. Neither is there a sufficient number of schools nor are there enough teachers, as most of them there were either recruited to fight in the war or fled for safety after receiving threats. Meanwhile, in the areas they control, Islamist groups have imposed particular religious curricula, and nothing can protect those who dare to go beyond those curricula from the Islamists’ fury!

While it is true that no one can argue against the fact that education is a basic right and the urgency of developing children’s awareness and knowledge, it is also true that the war has imposed a new formula on these children. It renders staying alive and surviving the priority, even if that comes at the expense of education and other needs.

“I have to feed my mother and brothers,” Khaled, 12, replies firmly when asked about his schooling. Many others, like him, suffered the loss of their family’s breadwinner to death, arrest, injury, or familial disintegration and were forced to support themselves and their families by working menial jobs that are sometimes extremely taxing and not suitable for children their age. These jobs, be they in bakeries, restaurants, construction sites, car mechanics, or on the street, leave them vulnerable to physical, psychological and sexual abuse.

It is a scene that has become commonplace in most Syrian cities or areas where Syrians had migrated and fled to, children as young as ten years old either mortifyingly begging for money or roaming streets and residential areas to sell tissue boxes or bundles of bread, wipe car windows, or collect leftover food and plastic cans from heaps of rubbish. There, you see young Syrian girls, whom poverty forced into working as housemaids in return for accommodation and a puny wage, leaving their innocent bodies victimized by sexual harassment and rape. Those who married off at an early age, and there are many, have it the least bad, with no attention paid to the effects this has on their mental and physical health.

Worst of all is the spread of disturbing behavior and a proclivity for reckless cynicism and violence among Syrian children. These tendencies became widespread because of loss, oppression, orphanhood and extreme destitution, which have made Syrian vulnerable to being recruited to engage in all kinds of illicit activity, as well as becoming hooked on drugs, forced into child prostitution, and having their organs sold on the black market. The prevalence of this phenomenon has become apparent in some everywhere Syrian children are found, both inside and outside the country.

“Do not forget us” is the slogan of “Amal,” a giant doll of a Syrian child searching for her mother. She began her journey towards Western capitals months ago, passing through Berlin, Paris and London. It could perhaps draw the attention of the world’s governments and peoples, reminding them of their duty to address the extreme suffering of children like their own. Like them, Syrian children also deserve a future and a secure life.